Peake Gothick

Moat at Raglan Castle © C A Lovegrove

I’m currently revisiting Gormenghast Castle – in the form of the second part of the trilogy chronicling the last of the Groan dynasty. Gormenghast is yet another instalment that encourages the reader to linger and relish successive vignettes, and I’m taking my time.

As with Titus Groan I’m drawn, weakly struggling, into the web Mervyn Peake has woven; and as with that title I’m (re)engaging with the distinctive names which so conveyed the grotesque nature of the castle’s denizens and the decayed atmosphere of the sprawling structure.

In a similar fashion I started (in this post) to jot down the peculiarities of Gormenghast itself and to consider from where Peake may have drawn inspiration. But right now I want to add a few extra observations in preparation for a summative piece when I’ve completed Gormenghast, and before I eventually move on to Titus Alone, and then Titus Awakes.

Ben Matthews. Sketch map of Gormenghast Castle.

I’m not the first – nor will I be the last – to attempt a representation of Gormenghast. But, searching online, the only detailed interpretation I can find is by Ben Matthews, whose fan art bird’s eye view, shown above, is certainly ingenious and depicts the castle’s confusing mess. My own thinking would also take into account places Peake knew from his own experience: Tianjin in China (where he was born and lived the first decade of his life), Eltham College in Kent (where he went to boarding school), Sark (where he resided in the 1930s and again in the late 40s), residences near Arundel Castle in Sussex, and of course different districts of London.

As is my wont, during my read of Titus Groan I took notes to keep track of people and places, timelines and themes. In particular I attempted to sketch out the rough plan of the castle’s layout and its environs. I plotted Gormenghast Mountain to the west – though confusingly it sometimes seems to be to the east – the castle island-like on its eminence above a river, and the shantytown dwellings adjoining and clinging to its walls. I noted the wings of the structure itself aligned to the four cardinal points of the compass, the principal features (such as the imposing Tower of Flints in the east wing), the access points mentioned as penetrating the surrounding walls, the landscape features dotting the enclosed grounds.

Preliminary notes for a plan of Gormenghast Castle © C A Lovegrove

All this I got from my read in 2015 of the first instalment; but knowing that mistakes can creep in I’ve now supplemented those notes with summaries from other sources, principally The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, EverybodyWiki (an inclusionist online encyclopedia which also “rescues” items deleted from Wikipedia), and the official Mervyn Peake website (which includes some haphazard entries on the Gormenghast series).

But of course there’ll be more to add as I read through Gormenghast and discover more of those out-of-the-way places in and through which the Castle’s denizens furtively scuttle, like the school about which I’m currently reading, the abandoned areas which Titus roams to claim as his own, or the unexpected quadrangles which are suddenly revealed.

As I explore I hope to be sensing more of what may have influenced Peake’s visions – Piranesi’s imaginary prisons perhaps, or Sark’s subterranean secrets – and what mental upsets he may have tried to express and thus excise from his war experiences. I may glean even more as I continue patiently plodding through the separate memoirs his widow Maeve and son Sebastian published, both incorporated in Mervyn Peake: Two Lives.

Why am I doing all this? I suppose it’s part of a desire to immerse myself in writers’ imaginative worlds, one that’s satisfying but also manageable because accessible through the printed or online word. Because, too, I want to know what points Peake wanted to make in conjuring up this vast antiquated world.

And, frankly, because imaginary worlds can often be so much less upsetting than living in a real world gone mad.

© C A Lovegrove

• Maeve Gilmore & Sebastian Peake. Mervyn Peake: Two Lives. Vintage, 1999.
• Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi. 1980. The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Macmillan.
• Mervyn Peake. 1950. Gormenghast. Penguin Modern Classics, 1977.

Gormenghast Castle by Mark Robertson

If you’ve read this novel I’d be grateful for your response to it – did it offer what you expected from it and did you go on to the next volume(s)? If you didn’t enjoy it what reservations did you have? Indeed, did you complete it or give it up as a bad job?

17 thoughts on “Peake Gothick

  1. I love this trilogy, Chris. I first read it when I was in my mid-teens because a pop star I had a crush on mentioned it in an interview. I borrowed it from the library in a Penguin single volume – huge! My mum then bought me a boxed set of three paperbacks and I read it again. I have the illustrated edition from 2011 which I have yet to read. Perhaps I will find time for it soon.

    I’ve never tried to map out the castle or its environs but your attempt and that of Ben Matthews are fascinating.

    The names are the thing for me – they really fix the characters in the mind’s eye.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can quite understand your love for the novels, Jan, even though I’m not even halfway through them. I tried Titus Groan at uni, coming fresh from the late 60s availability of LOTR in one volume, and really couldn’t see the appeal at the time. I do now!

      That naming of names thing Peake does, he almost outDickens Dickens, doesn’t he? At first the professors are confusing in their multiplicity – and their students too, of course – but key ones like Bellgrove stick in the mind because they come to the fore. I’ve arrived at a couple of scenes which, unusually, aren’t gratuitously grotesque as the Gormenghast novels mostly are: where siblings Fuschia and Titus make a connection, and when we’re left with a vision of Bellgrove, Titus and Prunesquallor playing at marbles on the floor of the Lichen Fort. I found these vignettes quite moving.

      Was the pop star Sting? His eldest daughter is called Fuschia, isn’t she, and I believe he once held the film rights to the trilogy, and may still do. Meanwhile, I make no apology for attempting to map the castle and environs. The place is as much a character as Steerpike or the Countess, and if volumes 1 and 3 (and the other published titles) are focused on Titus, the title of this second volume suggests the rambling structure also has a personality.


      1. The marbles scene is lovely, I agree – the willingness of two authority figures to play with Titus in his confinement gains his respect for them beautifully.

        Another moving but hilarious vignette that sticks with me involves Irma Prunesquallor and her attempt to find a husband. She’s so ridiculous and yet also so determined. I loved her for it.

        It was Simon Le Bon, singer in Duran Duran, who mentioned the trilogy, but Sting did hold the rights and played Steerpike in a Radio 4 adaptation around the time I read the books. I haven’t heard that adaptation as I have an aversion to Sting!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. There’s no accounting for aversions, we all have them though we don’t always share them!.🙂 I’m looking forward to reading more about Irma and her quest for a partner.


  2. I’m impressed by your attempt to sketch out the castle and its surroundings! I think it’s been over twenty years since I read these books but I vividly remember the world Peake created and am looking forward to revisiting it, hopefully soon. I loved Titus Groan and Gormenghast, but struggled with Titus Alone which I found too different from the first two. I’ll be interested to see if I enjoy it more on a re-read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m curious about Titus Alone and especially what I may make of it, Helen, but for the moment am happy to wallow in Peake’s gothic visions! I wish now I’d followed up Titus Groan sooner with this, but then there were a few years between the publication of the two titles and Peake does give a synopsis of past doings in the first few chapters, so I haven’t really lost out on much.


  3. I tried reading Gormenghast as a teen and gave it up because it didn’t seem to be fantasy. I tried it again and read the whole book sometime in the last couple of years, but I didn’t like it much. Seemed like a bunch of Dickens characters creeping around the kind of ruined castle an 18th-century gentleman would enjoy viewing from his garden.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Harsh, Jeanne – but to a degree justified! Did you read Titus Groan beforehand? For me it was important as that first volume established key characters, motivations and contexts. Is it fantasy? Depends on your definition: there’s no real magic as such, but that such a huge structure stuffed with grotesque personages should be in any way realistic is equally impossible to believe.

      The series is definitely, as we Brits would say, Marmite where tastes are concerned – you either like it or you don’t. Myself, I didn’t fifty years ago but now I’m really appreciating it for the grotesque artwork it is.

      I see Peake’s accomplishment as part of a tradition that follows on from Hogarth, Swift, Sterne and others, cocking a snook at pointless outdated ritual, taking the mickey out of inherited wealth, promoting curiosity, and questioning the status quo. And there are even moments of affection and compassion, though they are few and far between.


  4. Mightily impressed with your attempts to map the place – I must admit I tend to just go with the sprawling vagueness! I am currently leaving my customary gap between Gormenghast and Titus Alone, which I find helps me cope with the shift in settings!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sprawling vagueness is right, Karen, and I’m reminded of Clarke’s Piranesi every now and then, as when Titus is crawling, lost, through the castle’s abandoned underground passages.

      The place is so much akin to the Jungian dreams I used to – and still occasionally – have, of exploring a half-familiar house from childhood and finding doors I never knew existed, with stairs leading to unexpected basements or attics… Rereading Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone I suppose has brought it back to me!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Though I left nearly fifty years between unsuccessfully trying the first book to actually successfully reading and enjoying it, I think I was definitely in a more informed and receptive mood for it now than then. So, yes, if my experience counts for anything do try them again!

      As for Raglan Castle – it sounds as though you’ve been? – it’s one of those edifices that despite its ruined condition is quite easy to imagine in its heyday and, for those with a romantic disposition, to physically climb towers, explore cellars and enjoy views whatever one’s age! As it’s only a dozen or so miles from us we’ve found it an ideal place to visit with grandkids.


  5. Oh my goodness, this is so cool! I’m keeping this post bookmarked for my intended return to Gormenghast. I love love love your map!

    (Also, I have to echo Jan’s comment: the names are all just so wonderful!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, it’s only a rough plan which I hope to finesse after I’ve finished Gormenghast. It won’t be a patch on Ben Matthews’ more visual sketch, sadly! There’s more discussion on some of the castle’s likely inspirations on my post here:


  6. Terence Grimwood

    I stumbled across this site just two days after visiting an exhibition of paintings by Fabian Peake, Mervyn’s son. The exhibition got me thinking about Gormenghast, and how my mental image of the castle was informed by Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons. Then I read this piece and there was the reference to Piranesi. Two coincidences. Or were they?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How lovely, Terence, where is or was this exhibition?

      Now, Piranesi. I suspect that what are called synchronicities – that is, coincidences that are near enough coincidental (though the “near enough” criterion can be unrealistically stretched out by some) – could be down to the fact that our minds are attuned to patterns and that the proximity of these coincidences in time and/or space result in our attaching significance to them. And when I say significance I mean that it’s easy for us to ascribe that “sign” to a higher intelligence, Fate or whatever trying to communicate something to us.

      But this is how poetic minds work, isn’t it? Mervyn and Maeve, and their son Fabian, all artists (and writers) will be stimulated by visual and literary metaphors; and you, I guess, will see an exhibition, think about Gormenghast, be reminded about the carceri, and stumble across my site because of all these concepts are seen as interlinked. Call it synchronicity, if you will, or being attuned to metaphors, and poof! magic happens! That’s my theory, anyway!


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